On May 21, a group of seven women-led and -oriented companies placed an open letter in The New York Times, in which they spoke out against new and proposed state legislation bans on abortion. Barely three weeks later, the corporate anti-ban movement has snowballed into a second public letter in the Times. This one, titled “Don’t Ban Equality,” was supported by more than 180 companies. The group is dominated by brands associated with female consumers, but many other companies, large and small, have also signed on.
Why the New York Times abortion statement is just the beginning
Not too long ago, the topic of abortion rights was something that U.S. business leaders almost uniformly avoided. Now, the topic has launched what has become yet another example of next-level corporate activism. From gun control to immigration rights, companies are stepping into the media spotlight on matters of broad social concern.
Recent events marking the gun safety movement illustrates that point. For decades, the National Rifle Organization (NRA) and its political allies have dominated the national conversation on gun control. Only a very few high-profile business leaders dared to speak publicly in favor of what they insisted are common-sense gun safety regulations.
Gender equality, gender diversity and abortion rights
The abortion rights movement has crossed over into the business community in a similar way.
The decision to go public on a controversial issue is never an easy one, especially when the public debate splits along party lines and across society.
That makes the new public letter is all the more noteworthy. The letter was organized by three groups strongly associated with liberal and progressive activism and political support for the Democratic Party: Planned Parenthood, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL).
Nevertheless, the letter was made almost inevitable by this shift within the corporate social responsibility movement. The three groups make this change clear throughout the letter and supporting materials, including a press release and website.
The key passage in the public letter is this:
“Equality in the workplace is one of the most important business issues of our time."
"When everyone is empowered to succeed, our companies, our communities and our economy are better for it.”
The letter emphasizes that restrictions on abortion and other health care for women “threatens the health, independence and economic stability of our employees and customers. Simply put, it goes against our values and is bad for business.”
The website and press release also both state that “business leaders are stepping up to say that these bans go against their company values and negatively affect efforts to promote equality in the workplace, putting businesses, communities and the economy at risk.”
Corporate activism and the bottom line
Crucially, the public letter draws a sharp, tight line between abortion rights and the bottom line. It concludes:
“Simply put, [restricting reproductive care] goes against our values and is bad for business. It impairs our ability to build diverse and inclusive workforce pipelines, recruit top talent across the states, and protect the well-being of all the people who keep our businesses thriving day in and out.”
If you caught that line about top talent, that is perhaps the most significant aspect of this latest public letter.
The global business community is in a race to attract the best possible talent and the next generation of innovators.
Those companies that fail to diversify their workforces are facing a troubled future, partly by failing to identify problematic areas in their operations, and more directly by failing to expand their recruiting efforts.
In the U.S., the talent issue has come into stark relief as the workforce diversifies with more women and non-whites in top fields, along with more people who identify outside of the conventional borders of gender.
The private sector-government connection
The latest wave of abortion restrictions also has an impact on U.S. companies that conduct business with government agencies like the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy. Together, these agencies employ thousands of highly-skilled workers in facilities that sprawl across the U.S. - including career-oriented women in the workforce who are in their childbirth years all through peak periods for academic progress, on-the-job training and promotion.
So far few of the very largest corporations have joined in the #DontBanEquality effort, but the trickle could soon turn into a flood.